The best place to see Elephants in Sri Lanka
During my trip to Sri Lanka, I was fortunate enough to see elephants on several different occasions. Elephants have long been a part of Sri Lankan culture, so it’s not out of place to see them intermingled with it. In fact, my first sighting of an elephant, adorned in ceremonial garb, was whilst it was being paraded down a street as part of a local celebration.
My honest opinion, however, about where is best to see elephants in Sri Lanka (or anywhere else in the world for that matter) is in the wild. Or as close to that as you can possibly get.
Be wary of Elephant Orphanages
Perhaps the easiest (although not, in my opinion, the best) place to see elephants in Sri Lanka is in an elephant orphanage. It is often difficult to tell whilst researching online, ahead of your trip, whether or not these places are reputable and truly put the animals’ well-being first. Orphanages can be very good at giving the illusion that they are conservation focused and welfare-centred.
If you’re flying to Sri Lanka, it’s most likely you will fly into Colombo on the West coast; Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is roughly a 2-hour drive east from there.
I visited Pinnawala myself but if I had my time again I would skip it and spend both time and money in another of Sri Lanka’s national parks instead.
Pinnawala undeniably offers you the chance to get close, really close, to elephants. However, I had my reservations as to whether the welfare of the animals was really being put before their money-making opportunities for the orphanage.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is a place where elephants are cared for after being orphaned for various reasons (some man-made, some not). What the name doesn’t tell you is that the Orphanage is a HUGE tourist attraction.
You will enter the orphanage via a large street with many stalls, shops and even a couple of hotels lining it. The elephants are herded down the street, to the river at the end, to bathe twice a day. This draws in big crowds because of how close you can get to the animals at this time. Once the elephants have finished bathing they are herded back up the street, through the crowds, to the other areas of the orphanage.
As well as numerous photo opportunities, there are also opportunities to feed and ride the elephants during your visit – this is the part I’m dubious about. Due to the conditions that the elephants have been rescued from prior to being at Pinnawala, it’s unlikely they would ever be able to lead a ‘regular’ or ‘wild’ life. However, I think they should be allowed to live a life that is as close to a wild one as possible – for me, this doesn’t involve elephant rides and being fed by paying visitors.
With the close proximity of people and very large, very powerful animals comes the need to control them. Be aware that at Pinnawala, some animals have chains around them to help control them if they become ‘unruly’ and that the keepers all have an ‘ankus’ or ‘bullhook’ for the same purpose.
I wasn’t against the presence of these safety precautions as such, I was against how close you could get to the elephants in the first place. I am of the general opinion that ‘if you can ride it, feed it or take a selfie with it, it’s not wild and that animal isn’t living the life it should be’.
I do believe that the animals have been rescued from worse conditions than they experience at Pinnawala, I just think the rehabilitation and the sanctuary that they offer to the elephants should take priority over their money making potential. My overall impression was that Pinnawala felt far more like a tourist attraction than it did a place of rehabilitation, certainly during peak hours of the day.
The Born Free organisation also have their concerns about Pinnawala; their article is worth a read ahead of your visit if you’re undecided about whether it will be somewhere you would like to visit or not.
If getting close (but not too close) to elephants and having amazing photo opportunities is what you’re after, then Sri Lanka’s national parks are a perfect, and relatively easy, option for seeing elephants in their natural environment.
Even better is the fact that there are plenty of fantastic national parks all over Sri Lanka to choose from. I’ve listed 3 great options for where to see wild elephants in Sri Lanka: Yala National Park, Kaudulla National Park and Minneriya National Park.
Yala National Park
Yala is located in the Southeast corner of Sri Lanka (approximately 260km Southeast of Colombo). The park itself is split into 5 blocks, with around 130,000 hectares of land that stretches all the way to the shores of the Indian Ocean, however not all of the park is accessible to visitors, with only 2 of the blocks being open to the public.
I visited Yala on my 4th day in Sri Lanka (in early October time) and hired a tour guide with a jeep to explore the park for a couple of hours. Even in that short time, the glimpses of wild elephants, crocodiles, kingfishers, monkies and even the elusive Sri Lankan leopard will stay with me for a lifetime.
We were fortunate enough to spot a small herd of wild elephants (with babies in tow) in the bush. Any experience you may have of elephants in captivity is never going to compare to seeing them in the wild, undisturbed by human presence. When leaving the park that evening, we also came across a juvenile male elephant grazing at the roadside as the park was quietening down for the night. That was an incredible, freak encounter and as we carefully passed by I got the most amazing up-close view of a wild animal.
Yala’s lifeblood is conservation and eco-tourism, however, some of the jeep drivers that you’re able to hire to guide you around the park can be a little too keen to get you the best view of the wildlife, especially as there may be other groups trying to spot the same creatures.
Make sure your driver knows to keep a respectable distance from the wildlife you’re spotting. For the most part, I found our guide to be great at knowing where to see the animals without disturbing them, however, he did accidentally scare off a leopard we had spotted (by pure chance) in his eagerness to get us the best photo opportunity of it- unfortunately this resulted in no photos of the leopard; our memories of this beautiful creature will have to be enough.
Kaudulla National Park
Kaudulla National Park is maybe one of Sri Lanka’s lesser-known national parks, perhaps because it is also one of its newest (opening in 2002). Located approximately 200km Northeast of Colombo, Kuadulla offers the opportunity to see large numbers of elephants (the park is home to 200+ of them, as well as plenty of other wildlife) but doesn’t attract as many jeeps and wildlife watchers as some of the other national parks do.
The best time to visit Kuadulla is between August and December, as this is when the park experiences its dry season and much of its wildlife congregates around the central lake -the Kaudulla Tank. Elephant numbers peak during September to October time (slightly later than other surrounding national parks). Outside of Kuadulla’s dry season, up to two-thirds of the park can be submerged underwater; although elephants can be seen in the park all year round, they become much harder to spot during the wet season.
Minneriya National Park
Minneriya, Kuadulla and Wasgamuwa National Parks are part of the elephant corridor, which plays host to a mass migration of elephants, during the dry season, to Minneriya’s reservoir. The spectacle has become known as ‘the gathering’ and large numbers of wild elephants can be spotted feeding, socialising and bathing at the water’s edge.
Unsurprisingly, this natural event is becoming increasingly popular with tourists, particularly as there have been reports of numbers ranging from 350 to 700 elephants being spotted. Minneriya National Park is roughly 180km Northeast of Colombo, the dry season occurs between July and November, however, August and September are said to be the best months to spot the gathering of wild elephants.
Have you seen Elephants in the wild, either in Sri Lanka or elsewhere in the world? I’m interested to know what your experience has been like, particularly if you’ve had a wild vs orphanage experience too.
Whilst I was in South East Asia I also spent time in The Maldives – read 8 Photos That Will Make You Want to Visit the Maldives if you’d like to find out more about my luxury trip, or explore my Wanderlust category for more travel tales.